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Sri Lanka war near end, but ethnic tension remains

[AP, Friday, 6 February 2009 07:56 No Comment]

The Sri Lankan government is poised to crush the Tamil Tiger rebels and end a quarter-century civil war that has killed tens of thousands. But it still faces a major challenge beyond the battlefield: resolving the ethnic conflict that fueled the uprising.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa has consistently expressed support for a deal to give the ethnic Tamil minority on this South Asian island nation more say in a government long dominated by the Sinhalese majority.

"The sowing of discord belongs to the past. The future belongs to those who sow the seeds of unity," he said in a speech Wednesday marking Independence Day.

Critics welcome the words, but they say little has actually been done to reconcile the ethnic groups.
"The military machine is in full action … in the political arena there is no movement at all," said independent lawmaker Mano Ganesan, who is Tamil. "The causes that led to the creation of Tamil nationalism, and from Tamil nationalism to Tamil extremism, and from Tamil extremism to Tamil terrorism, they very much exist today."

The ethnic conflict traces back to Sri Lanka’s independence from Britain 61 years ago, when the mainly Buddhist Sinhalese took power after decades of what they saw as British favoritism toward the mainly Hindu Tamils.

In the ensuing years, successive governments dominated by the Sinhalese pushed policies favoring their language and community and marginalizing Tamils. By the 1970s, a patchwork of rival Tamil political and militant groups began calling for a separate state in the historic Tamil heartlands of the north and east, which they called Eelam.

War broke out in 1983 when Tamil Tiger guerrillas killed 13 soldiers in an ambush and Sinhalese mobs retaliated with anti-Tamil riots that human rights groups say killed as many as 2,000 people.
Thousands of Tamils joined the rebels, known formally as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Tens of thousands of others fled abroad, creating a Tamil diaspora that has been a rich source of funding for the rebels.

The Tamil community accounts for about 18 percent of Sri Lanka’s 20 million people, and Sinhalese comprise about 74 percent. Most of the rest are Muslims.

The government says that once it finishes off the rebels it will be willing to devolve some power to the provinces, giving Tamils, with large populations in the north and east, a significant say in local affairs.
It also promises a big influx of economic aid for development in the north.

"With increasing prosperity the temptation to take up a gun and go to the jungle might be less," Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona said. "We also feel that once the back of the LTTE is broken completely, the violence that we see in the country will gradually fade away."

But many Tamils retain deep suspicions of the government, exacerbated by reported statements from politicians and military leaders about maintaining the Sinhalese, Buddhist nature of the country.
Recent reports of large casualties among 250,000 Tamil civilians trapped in the remaining war zone have intensified those suspicions.

At their height, the rebels controlled a shadow state in the north with its own flag, police force and courts.
But government troops broke through the front lines a few months ago, routed the rebels from all their major strongholds and boxed them into a sliver of coast. The rebel group is on the verge of being destroyed as a conventional force, and its dream of establishing Eelam is in tatters.

Rajapaksa predicted Wednesday that the war could be over within days.

"Basically, they are finished, now we have the mopping up operation," said Nimal Siripala De Silva, a senior government minister.

Many experts warn, however, that the rebels still have fight left.

Military analyst Susantha Seneviratne, a retired colonel, said Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran has proven himself a wily strategist.

"He’s waiting for an opportunity," Seneviratne said. "This is not going to be the end of the fight."
Others suggest that even if the bulk of the rebels are wiped out, insurgents may blend into the civilian population and stage guerrilla attacks for years to come.

And even if the rebel movement is destroyed, a new one could rise if nothing is done to resolve ethnic strife, experts say.

"A festering conflict will continue until that is resolved," said political analyst Jehan Perera.

The government says it will use the example of eastern Sri Lanka, which it captured from the rebels in 2007, as a blueprint for resolving tensions in the north.

Officials spent hundreds of millions of dollars on development projects in the east and held polls that ended with a former rebel leader, who defected to the government side, winning election as the region’s chief minister.
But human rights groups and residents say the east is still riven by chaos and violence, much of it blamed on chief minister Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan’s party of defectors. The group remains armed and is blamed for a wave of kidnappings, killings and extortion reminiscent of the Tamil Tigers.

Chandrakanthan’s group itself has fractured into warring factions, leading to even more violence, while Tamil Tiger guerrillas hiding in the bush have launched increasingly frequent attacks on government forces in the region.

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